Story Notes:
"Wailing Well"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 20.)

In 1987, Oxford World's Classics published Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, a collection of twenty-one tales by M.R. James with excellent notes by Michael Cox. Twelve stories were excluded from the volume, so twelve stories remained unannotated until I began this series of notes in G&S 10. The tales were dealt with in the order in which they appear in the Collected Ghost Stories, and the page/line references were to the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James (1984) although they should be comprehensible even with a different edition. The notes for "Wailing Well" were compiled with the help of David Rowlands and John Alfred Taylor.

M.R. James wrote "Wailing Well" for the Eton Boy Scouts, and read it at their summer camp at Worbarrow Bay in Dorset (about thirteen miles east of Weymouth) on July 27, 1927. In a letter of July 25 (Letters to a Friend, ed. Gwendolen McBryde, Arnold 1956, p.144), MRJ says: "Tomorrow it is proposed that the Lower Master takes me by car to Worbarrow Bay in Dorset where the Scouts are in camp - it is further proposed that by the camp fire I should read them a story of a terrible nature, which I have made - contrary to my expectation." The tale is therefore only the second that MRJ wrote specifically for reading to children (the other being "A School Story" for the King's College Choir School).

The first appearance in print of "Wailing Well" was in the form of a small limited-edition book, 157 copies of which were privately published by old-Etonians Robert Gathorne-Hardy and Kyrle Leng under the Mill House Press imprint (Stanford Dingley) in 1928. The story was then reprinted in The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James (Arnold 1931). The whereabouts of the manuscript are not known.

In M.R. James: An Informal Portrait (OUP 1983, p.146), when discussing the extra stories in the Collected volume, Michael Cox opines that "'Rats' is the only one of these pieces that recalls M.R. James at his best". This seems a little unfair on "Wailing Well", which includes some excellent Jamesian chills and black humour.

p.350, l.8: "the Head Master": At the time of the story he would have been Dr Cyril Argentine Alington: "an accomplished classicist, a witty writer especially of light verse, and a priest of orthodox convictions" ... "with whom MRJ was to enjoy the closest of relations" (R.W. Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James, Scolar Press 1980, p.260). He left Eton in 1933 to become Dean of Durham.

p.350, l.11: "Life and Works of Bishop Ken": There is no volume with this specific title in the British Library catalogue. MRJ may not have had an actual book in mind, but if he did, the most likely candidates are: The Prose Works of Thomas Ken (1838, with "a short account of his life") and Poems, devotional, and didactic, from the Poetical Works of Bishop Ken (1835?, with "a Life of the Bishop"). Thomas Ken (1637-1711) became Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1685. He was the most famous of the 'non-jurors' who refused to swear allegiance to William & Mary, and was deprived of his See in 1691.

p.350, l.13-14: "the Provost...Vice-Provost": The former was M.R. James himself; the latter at this time would have been Hugh V. Macnaghten, whose book on life at Eton, Fifty Years of Eton, was published in 1924, two years before MRJ's Eton & King's. "Neither could endure to read the other's work for Hugh thought Monty frivolous and Monty knew Hugh to be sentimental," according to Cyril Alington, quoted in Cox, MRJ: An Informal Portrait, p.214.

p.350, l.23: "Mr Hope Jones": Known at Eton as "Hojo", William Hope Jones was a maths teacher noted for his eccentricity; he was feared among the Scouts for his loud, stentorian singing.

p.350, l.25: "Lower Master": C.H.K. Marten, who took over the post in 1925 from MRJ's good friend A.B. Ramsay, when Ramsay succeeded A.C. Benson as Master of Magdalene. Marten became Vice-Provost in 1929.

p.350, l.27: "Third Form": The boys in the Third Form would be aged twelve to thirteen.

p.351, l.1-2: "of both the School and of the Oppidans": The School is composed of the Scholars (that is, those boys who have scholarships). Oppidans are non-scholarship fee-paying pupils.

p.351, l.25: "Dutch oven": A container used for cooking on or in an open fire.

p.351, 1.34 - p.352, l.17: "the life-saving competition... a thing of the past": A hilarious piece of black comedy which shows how well MRJ knew his audience.

p.351, l.38: "Cuckoo Weir": Also known as Ward's Mead; a quiet backwater of the Thames at Eton, where all swimming tests for the junior boys took place until the 1950s, when increasing pollution forced a move elsewhere.

p.352, l.6 & l.20: "Mr Beasley Robinson", "Mr Lambart": A.C. Beasley Robinson and Julian Lambart, the Masters who were the main driving force behind the Eton Scouts at this time. Lambart eventually became Vice-Provost. As "Lombard" he features in David Rowlands' "The Codex" (Mystery for Christmas, ed. Richard Dalby, O'Mara 1990). The Precentor named in "Wailing Well", Dr H.G. Ley, was also real and contemporary with the telling of the story.

p.352, l.24-25: "district of W...county of D": i.e. Worbarrow in Dorset. According to MRJ's obituary in the Eton College Chronicle, as quoted in Cox's MRJ: An Informal Portrait, p.208, "the scene of the story was quite close to Camp", "with the result that several boys had a somewhat disturbed night".

p.352, l.37: "Wilfred Pipsqueak": Pip, Squeak and Wilfred were three animals (a penguin, a dog and a rabbit) who appeared in a children's comic strip in the Daily Mirror from 1919 to 1946. Thousands of children throughout the country joined fan clubs for the characters. Undoubtedly the Scouts would have understood MRJ's reference and enjoyed the joke.

p.354, l.25-26: "They hadn't much to call faces... teeth": A classically Jamesian and much-copied line.

Copyright (c) 1995 Rosemary Pardoe.

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